“Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun.”— Mary Lou Cook
The history of innovation, dotted with many accidental discoveries is a colorful one.
Accidental discoveries and stories capture our imagination. They open the fields of possibility for novel creative ideation.
What are some of the stories behind these amazing discoveries?
And what can we learn from these discoveries about the ideation and innovation process?
Are some of these discoveries only by chance or does fortune favor the prepared and the discerning mind?
Here are some great accidental discoveries and the lessons that we can learn from them:
1. The Stickiness Of Velcro
“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” – Albert Einstein
Velcro has an interesting story of discovery. In 1948, George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor was on a hike in nature with his dog when they got covered by clingy seeds called burrs.
Now many of us have had this happen to us when seeds get stuck in our pants as we walk through a trail or a field.
In Mestral’s case, this event sparked his curiosity to observe the seeds and their adherence to his pants further.
He discovered that the stiff hooks of the seeds had gotten caught in the soft loops that were present in the wooden fabric of his pants.
Mistral came up with the idea to create a hook and loop fastener system and give it the name of Velcro from the words “velour” and “crochet.”
After much experimentation, he realized that nylon with a special infrared process resulted in effective hooks for his Velcro.
Seven years later, Mistral was ready with his patented and finished design for Velcro. While laughed at the outset, Velcro stood the test of time to become one of the most useful and universal products of our time.
1. Take frequent walks in nature and keep your senses open for nature’s way of doing things.
2. Allow your curiosity and imagination to soar.
3. Translate what you see in the natural world to solve a problem that could bring value to the world.
4. Use the process of trial and error to perfect your design.
5. Keep at it even if the world laughs at you, especially if it a novel idea.
6. Become determined to make insights and ways to make your idea stick.
2. Penicillin And The Dawn Of Modern Medicine
“I have been trying to point out that in our lives chance may have an astonishing influence and, if I may offer advice to the young laboratory worker, it would be this—never neglect an extraordinary appearance or happening. It may be—usually is, in fact—a false alarm that leads to nothing, but may on the other hand be the clue provided by fate to lead you to some important advance.” -Alexander Fleming
In 1928. Sir Alexander Fleming walked into his laboratory in London. He had been away for a two-week vacation with his family.
He looked around at the cluttered benches with glassware of different sizes and bottles of chemicals. He remembered his stack of culture plates sitting in the corner in a sink.
Fleming observed his culture plates and to his dismay, one of his plates was contaminated with what appeared as mold.
This is common and most scientists would just toss the plate away. But in that brief moment of observation, the keen scientist could tell that something was not right.
The bacterial cultures that he was growing seemed to have developed halos or areas of no growth. This happened only in the area of the plate contaminated with the mold.
The contaminating mold, a fungus called penicillin created history.
The halos that it created on Fleming’s plate was its legendary anti-bacterial property.
Fleming’s mold and other antibiotics went on to save millions of lives.
1. While Decluttered areas can make us think better, do not dismiss cluttered areas as a source of ideation.
2. Always prepare to observe keenly and with a beginners mind and ask what is amiss in a situation.
3. Negative result as failures can be a great source of discovery if you choose to ask the right questions.
4. Go on a vacation and have a refreshing new perspective on things. Actually, you can alternatively choose to change the environment without an elaborate vacation. Simply step away from your desk for a creative blast of fresh air.
5. Use the power of the scientific method and hypothesis testing to answer some of your pressing questions.
6. Experiment rapidly and frequently to see if it works.
3. The Super hero of Glue: Super Glue
“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” – Michelangelo
In 1942, Dr. Harry Coover was looking to build clear plastic gun sights for allied soldiers in World War II.
One of his innovations using the material cyanoacrylate was not useful as a sight. However, it turned out to be a quick and effective adhesive.
It stuck to everything at contact and stuck well. Ironically, for its extreme stickiness to everything, it was rejected.
Coover abandoned the idea till many years later in 1951 when he rediscovered it along with Fred Joyner at Kodak Eastman.
Coover’s team was building heat resistant polymers for jet canopies and recognized the commercial value of the adhesive.
The discovery marketed originally as Eastman#910 was later renamed as Superglue.
The adhesive also received a hanging car as its logo and according to the company site:
“A radio station had heard about super glues and decided to put them to the test at a local junk yard. Among the super glues tested were many of the National Brands on the market today. The test was to hold a hanging car from a crane and the Super Glue Corporation product was the best! (Some of our competitor’s currently have “hanging things” like people, & television sets, but nothing compares to the strength of our hanging car.)”
1. You may set out to discover something and find something entirely new.
2. You have to have the foresight to recognize your new invention in other fields and cross disciplines. You may not imagine these uses in the beginning.
3. You may have to “cross talk” and “mix and match” your idea and improvise it for effectiveness in another application.
4. You have to cast aside the initial disappointment and expectation and be open to ideas that will benefit a field.
5. No idea is completely worthless. It may have hidden benefits in other applications and environments. DO not dismiss ideas that appear worthless at the moment. They may find use at a later time.
4. Eureka, Floatation and Archimedes
“Eureka! – I have found it!”- Archimedes
A famous anecdote about eureka insights and the power of creative incubation is that of the ancient mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse. Archimedes was preoccupied by the problem of how to measure the volume of an irregular solid.
The solution came to him in a bath that prompted him to rush out and run through the streets screaming “eureka” or I have found it.
Verstijnen and J M Hennessey describe in their study titled Sketching and Creative Discovery:
“One day, the story goes, Archimedes jumped out of the bath and ran joyfully and nakedly through the streets of Syracuse. Finally, he had discovered the solution to a problem that had been bothering him. For a long time, he had wondered how to measure the volume of an irregular object. Obviously, the discovery came to him at a moment he had not anticipated. This aspect of discovery is more frequently encountered in anecdotal evidence and self-reports.”
Archimedes was bothered by the problem of how to measure the volume and purity of an irregular solid.
Heiro of Syracuse had posed this problem to Archimedes because he suspected his pure gold crown has some silver mixed in by the dishonest goldsmith.
While Archimedes stepped into his bath he saw that the water level rose and as he was having his bath. He was struck with a flash of insight that made him jump out of the bath naked and run joyfully through the streets of Syracuse screaming ‘eureka’ or “I have found it.”
Even though this is a common example of an “eureka solution,” it is best to emphasize the fact that Archimedes was deeply immersed in the problem.
He underwent an incubative phase and stumbled upon the solution while he was least expecting it.
1. Deep Immersion into the problem is important for the solution.
2. After the immersion stage, Allow yourself to incubate or “forget or rest on the problem” instead of forcing a solution.
3. Changes of environment like a warm bath or shower, taking a walk or even taking a bus ride can be therapeutic to the ideation process. This may allow for new associations and restructuring of mental processes.
4. We do not recommended you to run out naked into the streets screaming eureka however. 🙂
5. Eureka insights happen only after prolonged immersion with the problem and attempts to solve a problem. Shortchanging the creative ideation process is not a good idea. And stay away from quick get-ideas-solutions soon schemes.
5. The Unknown X-Rays
“I did not think, I investigated….”- Wilhelm Röntgen
In 1895, the scientist Röntgen was experimenting with a cathode ray tube. Also called an electron-discharge tube, Röntgen had used black cardboard to block the glow when electrons struck the glass.
Röntgen noticed that some mysterious rays went through glass and made a nearby fluorescent screen glow up.
He called these mysterious rays that went through glass and several metals except the metal lead as X-rays.
An excerpt of the story from The Scientist:
“When Röntgen held a piece of lead in front of the electron-discharge tube, it blocked the rays, but he was shocked to see his own flesh glowing around his bones on the fluorescent screen behind his hand. He then placed photographic film between his hand and the screen and captured the world’s first X-ray image. Six weeks later, at the close of 1895, he published his observations and mailed his colleagues a photograph of the bones of his wife’s hand, showing her wedding ring on her fourth finger.”
1. When you build a prototype or try out a new idea, become aware of its effects on the surroundings. Changing the context can uncover new and creative uses for your original idea.
2. Be open to the idea that your original creation may not be successful in its current form but may have utility in another application.
3. Keep applying and changing the context to find more uses and utilities for your idea. You can use human based thinking approaches to get into the shoes of others and ask what will your new idea benefit.
6. The Best To Do Technique: Post-its
Spencer Silver was trying to discover a strong adhesive while working at 3M.
He ended up finding a new adhesive called Acrylate Copolymer Microspheres. The new adhesive was weak and pressure sensitive.
The adhesive could be easily peeled off and reused without leaving any traces or messes. And at that time, this discovery did not interest the company.
Four years later, on a Sunday, Arthur Fry of 3M was singing in the church choir. Fry’s problem was that his markers to keep the place in the hymnal kept falling off.
Fry used some of Silver’s weak adhesive to coat the markers. The adhesive was effective in keeping the markers in place without falling off.
Additionally, the markers could also be easily lifted off without any damage to the pages.
1. Connect a problem with a prior shelved invention.
2. Create an archival retrial system like Twyla Tharp’s boxes to file all your old ideas.
3. The important thing is to recognize the patterns and connect the dots. With practice, you should be able to scan your mental database of ideas with problems that you or someone is having at the moment.
4. Remember that no project is entirely wasted time and effort and can be used in a different context to solve a different problem.
7. The Miracle Of The Pacemaker
In 1956, “humble tinkerer” Wilson Greatbatch was building a device that would record the rhythm of the heart.
What turned out to be a happy accident, he inserted the wrong resistor into the circuit. This resulted in the regular release of electrical pulses.
Luckily for science and medicine, he was able to translate his happy accident into something useful. Greatbatch connected the new device with regulating the steady rhythm and electrical activity of the human heart.
But this idea was only part of his aha-moment. He had to work for the next two years to figure out how to reduce the pacemaker in size. The goal was to make a device that was small enough to implant and also make it waterproof from body fluids.
1. Watch and be open to happy accidents.
2. Translate the unexpected result of your tinkering into cross disciplines and other uses.
3. Persevere till the product gets developed. Having a great idea is the first step but to figure out how to get it to function in the right context is a whole different challenge.
Read more about the discovery here.
8. The Safe Safety Glass
1903, Edward Benedictus, a French scientist was working in his lab and accidentally knocked over a glass flask.
He could hear the glass shattering but to his surprise noticed that instead of shards of glass flying all over, they stayed in place and kept its form.
Benedictus was curious to find out what happened and learnt that the flask once contained cellulose nitrate, a plastic. The chemical had dried up inside the flask and was not cleaned properly leaving the coating intact.
Benedictus realized that his discovery could benefit automobile drivers. In those days, driving, a new hobby was risky with many drivers getting injured by shards of broken windshield glass.
Developing a new glass that would not shatter and disperse could be a game changer.
1. Even a failed experiment or a broken project could yield interesting and useful answers.
2. Broaden your vision to become aware of the problems that people face but no one is addressing to solve. Some of these are “hard to see” problems. Others are “hard to solve” problems.
3. Engagement with the problem and an intention of solving it can bring about happy results.
9. Flight Of The Frisbee
In the year 1871, William Russell Frisbee moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut and opened a baking company. The company was named the Frisbee pie company.
Over the years, the small bakery grew larger and offered many products including the famous cookie and the pie tins. The cookie and pie tins were bought by Yale students. After enjoying the contents, they tossed the lids and caught them as a game.
Eventually, the pie tin lid was perfected as a commercial product by Walter Fredrick Morrison who was the first to adopt plastic for the modern Frisbee.
1. You can build a prototype for a new product with knick-knacks and other building materials that are lying around the house. In fact, the company IDEO has a prototyping cart with tape and other materials that they can make a quick prototype from.
2. When you imagine other fun uses for common day materials and observe how people are using or recycling their packaging, you can learn new ideas.
3. Improvise and build on the utility of existing materials and fuse their functionality with the possibility of solving a problem or a novel approach.
Read more here.
10. The Art Of Weatherproof Rubber
“A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.”- Albert Szent- Gyorgyi
Before the process of vulcanization, rubber solidified in the winter cold and cracked. In the summer, rubber would melt and become a sticky mess.
In 1839, Charles Goodyear was working on stabilizing rubber and make it more user friendly.
From the good year website:
“The great discovery came in the winter of 1839. Goodyear was using sulphur in his experiments now. Although Goodyear himself has left the details in doubt, the most persistent story is that one February day he wandered into Woburn’s general store to show off his latest gum-and-sulphur formula. Snickers rose from the cracker-barrel forum, and the usually mild-mannered little inventor got excited, waved his sticky fistful of gum in the air. It flew from his fingers and landed on the sizzling-hot potbellied stove.
When he bent to scrape it off, he found that instead of melting like molasses, it had charred like leather. And around the charred area was a dry, springy brown rim — “gum elastic” still, but so remarkably altered that it was virtually a new substance. He had made weatherproof rubber.”
Thus the accidental spilling of a mixture of rubber, sulfur and lead resulted in the discovery of the modern day rubber.
Goodyear himself denied the “accidental” nature of the discovery. According to him, like Newton’s apple falling, you need to be ready to make and draw an inference from the facts available.
He also praised the ability to persevere and apply and engage the subject and question at hand.
1. Accidental discoveries happen to the prepared mind.
2. Be available to make inferences from the available data and experiments. If you miss the observation of the new results, you may not be able to see the novel synthesis.
3. Perseverance and engagement with the problem with a strong will can lead to serendipity and synchronicities in the form of accidents and chance occurrences. You are simply increasing the odds of a great solution in your favor by working incessantly on a worthy problem.
In conclusion, it seems that “happy accidents” are welcome in innovation. But for the accident to happen, we need to prepare and be in a state of receptive attention.
We need to deeply observe and respect the creative process.
We have to develop the idea and even be ready for mockery and rejection.
When need to see all the failures and accidents with our ideation. We can choose to learn and connect the dots instead of throwing in the towel.
Here is a formula:
Great Curiosity +
Great questions +
Keen Observation with the beginners mind +
Right Context +
A habit of experimentation and Evaluation or Trial and Error +
Changing the Environment and Perspective +
Cross Talk and Mix And Match or Connecting the dots +
Learning from Failure, Mistakes, Feedback and Improvisation +
Perseverance And A Tough Mind to Move forward =
Great Happy Accidents and Ideation
Now over to you. What do you think of this post?